Back in the 20th century, marketing aspired to build champion brands
that inspire people to just do it. Brands that elicit feelings, inspire awe, and
occupy a piece of our mental, social, and cultural landscape.
But something happened between then and now. Our ambitions changed, and got smaller.
Marketing leaders no longer seem to aspire to build champion brands anymore. In fact,
many marketers seem to have dispensed with brandbuilding as a goal altogether, no longer
aspiring to build something magical, but in fact the very opposite -- a factory.
Say That Again?
That's right, a discipline that once dealt in magic now aspires to run like an assembly
line for the creation of media & content assets. Blogs. Social posts. Videos. Emails.
All have become widgets by another name. People like me who sell content are supposed
to like this. But in truth, this is a navel-gazing goal. It's largely organizational.
It doesn't consider what customers need, or how to solve their problems, or build your
brand. In other words, it lessens the value of what I can provide.
So how did we end up here? Lots of reasons. Channels proliferated. Automation entered
the process. Organic social media capabilities divorced content creation from
marketing purpose in many organizations. Charlatans lied to us about what could be
achieved digitally, taught us to want the wrong things, and stole your money through
ad fraud. The reasons go on and on. More than can really be explored in a blog.
But what we can explore is why this aspiration for marketing as a factory is
fundamentally flawed, and what can be done about it.
Creativity Is The Prime Ingredient
Corporations are naturally inclined to love the idea of running a marketing department
like a factory. It implies scalability, efficiency, replicability, minimized risk, and
idiot-proofing. And if you view marketing as a process where messaging and content are
created, targeted, and published in a highly rigorous and disciplined process akin to
running a newspaper (an understandable position after a decade of being told that all
businesses have to think like publishers), then the notion of marketing as a factory
has intuitive appeal.
But marketing is not journalism. Journalism is impartial storytelling that strictly
deals in facts (or at least that's what it's supposed to be). A news story doesn't
need to deal in intangibles, it just needs to be complete, according to the "who,
what, when, where, why, and how" format.
But marketing and brandbuilding are creative storytelling. They have to be. Marketing
is expected to work magic, and you can't automate magic. Without magic, we've failed
as marketers, because we're no longer adding value. We're just coloring things in.
Creativity Is Anathema To A Factory
Factories run on repetition and predictability. Creativity is the opposite of both.
Put one creative person on an assembly line, and trouble will follow. Put all creative
people on an assembly line, and that assembly line will extremely slow, and you'll
end up with a different finished product, created at a different speed, each time.
Factories Know Where They're Going
Factories can work with their enviable speed and efficiency because when an assembly
line first starts up, one already knows exactly what the finished product is supposed
to be. One knows its dimensions. Its composition. How it should perform. And how much
deviation constitutes a failure.
But creative work is nothing like that. When you start the creative process, you only
have a rough idea of what the end product will be. You know that it will be a chair,
for instance, and you know that it has to support the weight of a full-grown person,
and you know its function (i.e., deskwork) and where it's meant to be used (i.e., in
an office), but that's about it. Everything else is decided largely as you go along,
often in collaboration with others, with the occasional pause thrown in as you wait
for inspiration to strike, and all those things take time.
Factories Know When There's A Problem
Factories have feedback mechanisms that reveal problems. If there's not enough output,
somebody complains. If there's too much output, inventory piles up. If products are
substandard, inspections find them or customers complain.
Twenty-first-century marketing is nothing like that. Now that brands have websites,
social media, and organic content, they can publish a near infinite amount of content
and receive very little feedback as to what effect it's having. Or they can publish
very little content and receive more or less the same feedback.
If a brand publishes something bad, people rarely take the time to stop and say,
"This post is terrible." It will be greeted with silence instead, and silence can
have many causes, making it inherently harder to interpret than feedback.
This lack of feedback is one of the primary reasons why marketing has become widgetry.
Without feedback, there's little incentive for marketing widgets to serve a goal. So
the widgets are now the goal. They are pieces of content, existing largely to take up
Factories Have Different Metrics
Factories are oriented around speed, cost-efficiency, failure rate, output quota, etc.
But think about what happens if you orient marketing around those things.
It's not that hard at a factory to determine the ideal number of widgets you should be
producing each month. But marketing is nothing like that. There is no objective and/or
reliable data out there for how many assets you should be producing. There's only
trial & error. And even that is pretty unreliable given the high rates of turnover we
have in our tools and our personnel that we have in marketing today.
And once output volume starts being used as a metric, it'll keep getting increased.
And while having some optimization here is a good idea, there's no way of knowing how
much is enough. With organic reach per post ever declining, and channels ever
proliferating, there literally is no ceiling, other than when your people burn out
A failure is easy to determine at a factory. It's a deviation that exceeds a
pre-defined deviation from a pre-defined ideal. In other words, a failure is something
that stands out. But what's an ideal blog post? TV ad? Whitepaper? And how much
deviation from it constitutes failure? I don't know. Do you? In marketing, a success
is something that stands out, and it isn't really pass/fail either. It's more like a
And yet there are still plenty of failures. Anyone who spends a few minutes actually
consuming ads will tell you that. Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crap.
And if you believe the Ad Rating Database
, a little over 50% of ads are ineffective
(i.e., failures). But what about the success rate?
Copywriting legend George Tannenbaum has compared advertising to baseball
, where it
only takes a batting average a little over .300 to be a league leader. But if you
have a .300 success average at a factory, your investors will be demanding your head
on a spike before long.
Don't even think about this one. RoI
is not a good metric to use. It doesn't measure
effectiveness, only efficiency, and doing the bare minimum can be highly-efficient.
Use RoI as your guide, and you'll end up dragging your brand through the mud by
utilizing high RoI tactics that require relatively little upfront investment, such
as spam email.
And if I haven't convinced you yet at to why RoI is a bad marketing metric, let's
shift gears and use movies as an example. The genre with the highest RoI is horror.
The reason why is because the young people who watch these movies are undemanding.
They only want things that are scary and gross. They don't care if the writing is
terrible or the acting is bad. All the characters are just going to die anyway.
And most horror movies are bad. Fantastically bad. But their RoI is great, so
nobody who makes them cares if they're bad. Would you want to try and build your
brand that way?
Deadlines focus the creative mind, but a perpetual drive to increase speed will
lead to increased hiring, but that often doesn't work as intended because approvals
are often a chokepoint in marketing, and because a relentless push for more speed
will burnout your experienced people, leading to their replacement by
inexperienced people, who will take months to be as effective as the ones you just
lost, if they ever do. And remember, marketing is knowledge work. If a marketer has
no time to think, they add no value.
Extreme Division Of Marketing Labor Doesn't Work
Media and channel proliferation has led to an extreme division of marketing labor
not unlike what you see at factories. But division of labor works for factories
because you already know what the end product will be. But in marketing, it
creates three problems. One, it leads to control over major channels and asset
classes by specialists who only understand the channels and asset classes, not
marketing or your business, and this has made it very easy for marketing
departments and agencies
to be overrun by people who, paradoxically, hate
capitalism -- an untenable situation.
Two, when you don't know exactly what the end product will be, you have to ask
questions, lots of questions, in order to make the best creative decisions. And
specialists and technicians often aren't plugged into the rest of the company in
the ways they need to be in order to get those questions answered. With either
problem, the result is often the same; finished assets that are professional,
optimized, expensive, and ineffective, because they were optimized for criteria
not involving the customer, or perhaps even the product.
And three, in a department full of specialists, the boss will have to make all
the marketing decisions, and sweat all of the details, and that just isn't
sustainable, especially if you intend to keep increasing your output.
Factory Work Is For Big Fish
When you run a marketing department like you would a factory, basically you are
saying that the wars of persuasion can only be won by the volume of your output,
not by the quality or content of your messaging. Now some will disagree with that.
They'll say that victory is achieved through mass personalization and precision
targeting. But those things are fools' gold, at least for a while. Our data is
. Progress isn't being made. Key players are starting to block
to consumer data. And regulators
may ultimately make it impossible.
And without them, all a factory can give you is output volume. And while the
Internet is indeed something of a noise contest, making the idea of output volume
as a goal somewhat appealing, if you actually embrace this thinking in a
marketing department, you embrace failure, because there will always be a bigger
fish than you. A smaller factory can't outfactory a larger one. You need to win
some other way.
So What Do We Do Instead?
I know that pointing out flaws in a system is easy, and having better ideas and
implementing them is hard. One cannot flip a switch and magically change
everything in marketing overnight. But I feel like the process begins with slowing
down a bit. Marketing departments are busy ticking boxes. Doing things because a
checklist requires it, not because it solves a marketing problem. Busy, busy, busy.
More, more, more.
We have to start backing away from that. We got into this thinking because of
channel proliferation. And because of decade-old thinking about paid tactics and
organic content. And these notions have been embraced deeply in Taiwan, because it
dovetails with the OEM origins of many of its businesses. But you can't win a
psychological battle through better engineering.
Try making fewer assets instead that are better in quality, made for customers,
not for Google (SEO ultimately works by appealing to customers). And by "better,"
I also mean more creative, not just more polished, or more iterated. Everybody has
whitepapers, videos, case studies, and social posts. If you really want to reach
people, you also need to create things
no one else has.
That's how brands are built.
But marketing cannot be some artisan utopia. Marketing is about business. That
means we need to reintroduce both sales thinking and creative thinking into the
marketing process again, and use metrics that serve marketing goals, business
outcomes, or brandbuilding goals, and not just tactical or channel optimization
This will require businesses to rethink who they hire, who they fire, and how
they work with agencies. Context is everything, so I can't give you all the
answers. But this should give you an idea of where you need to be asking the